(CNN) -- Dude, you have got to see this. Look in your in-box. Right there between the chain letter promising never-ending good fortune and the Top 10 list of reasons why cats are better than dogs. There it is: An e-mail filled with goofy images of sometimes dubious origins.
Chain e-mails containing images such as this one are a popular diversion for some.
If you're like most people, you receive several of these offbeat e-mails each week.
The subject line says something like, "FWD: Re: RE: You think you're having a bad day?" The images of crushed trucks, endangered daredevils and a horse gone through the front windshield of a car may or may not be genuine, but they certainly are incredible.
Such messages have their roots in chain letters that were once mailed out in paper form. Nowadays, the Internet allows for quick distribution of text, photos and video to many people at a time.
Lerick Johnson, 51, of Alliance, Nebraska, says he and his friends like to send funny photos and messages to each other and forward them on to friends and family. A few years ago, he went looking for Halloween pumpkin carving ideas and ended up sending photos of the more unusual jack-o'-lanterns as a mass e-mail. The photos are circulating again this year.
Some of the more interesting items he's received are archived on CDs he keeps, and the rest of it gets saved or deleted. Johnson said his goal in sending messages is to put a smile on the recipients' faces, and he can sense disinterest when they stop responding to messages. He tries to be sensitive to others' wishes to be off the list.
After a while, some of the messages he sends come full circle and return to him.
"I've made some things that were really weird that I've gotten back over a year later," he said. "It goes from one person to another person and you get it back. I think a lot of people look at stuff at work."
Johnson said he tries to avoid looking at viral e-mails at work because he fears that would be met with disapproval.
Workers should exercise discretion with e-mails, said Amy Bruckman, an associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who studies interactive computing and education. Such messages have the potential to cross professional boundaries, but they can also build bonds.
"A lot of times your relationship with a co-worker will border on friendship," Bruckman said. "By sending a co-worker something humorous you are building camaraderie."
In any relationship, sending the e-mails is a way to reduce awkwardness and provide a context for starting a conversation, she said.
"It's an excuse to talk to people you don't talk to every day, and it's a way of building up social capital," Bruckman said.
Occasionally, she says, people don't realize that their contacts don't share their sense of humor, or that their recipients have already seen the message 10 times. Some people send their e-mails to too many people.
"It doesn't work at all if you send it to 100 people and the header of the message fills the screen before you get to the joke," she said.
She suggests sending messages to a few select people, and asking yourself who would benefit most from the message.
Chad Holcomb of Cornelia, Georgia, is sick of junk e-mails peddling everything from Nigerian scams to anatomical enlargement. He said he also gets goofy e-mails in the mix and tries to be careful about who gets his e-mail address.
"There's people that think that because they get these things, they've got to send it to all 500 people on their list," Holcomb said. "That's why you don't want to get on any of those lists. As soon as they get something, they're going to send it to you."
Recently, he says, he has been receiving political e-mails, including doctored images of elected officials and a caricature of Hillary Clinton with a Pinocchio-style nose.
Barbara Mikkelson, co-founder of myth-debunking Web site snopes.com, said political joke e-mails are going to increase as the 2008 U.S. presidential election nears.
For the most part, though, Mikkelson said viral e-mails are just a bit of harmless fun.
More worrisome are fraudulent or deceptive e-mails that can hurt people financially, mentally and physically, she said. On the other hand, chain letters and funny photos are typically just for fun and can be safely enjoyed as long as they're taken with a grain of salt.
Some of the items are legitimate pictures that people want to share, while a great many others are either taken out of context or doctored to include altered or combined portions of photos, she said.
Mikkelson points out that one popular image shows a diver being lowered close to the mouth of a waiting shark. The image is made up of parts of legitimate images that have been sewn together to make something far more dramatic.
While unreliable, images such as this are all in fun, Mikkelson said.
"This is where we see the Internet being playful," she said. "Of course, people are trying to find out if it's real." E-mail to a friend